Montreal: Smoked Meat Pizza and the Man Behind It at Le Gros Jambon
Le Gros Jambon
286 Rue Notre-Dame Ouest, Montreal, Québec (map); 514-508-3872
Pizza Style: Doughy take on the classic 'Montreal old-school' style.
The Skinny: LaSalle native Ryan Dixon is serving up rich, decadent Motntreal pies like the not-to-be-missed smoked meat pie, which comes loaded with Schwartz's smoked meat, pickles, and a tangy mustard sauce.
Price: "Pizza bianca" is $13, and the smoked meat pizza $15.
Notes: Though the pizza is some of the best in the city, their other casse-croûte inspired items are terrific too, like the fresh-baked cake doughnuts, Coca Cola burgers, and gravy-soaked poutine.
Since it opened in November, Le Gros Jambon, a retro-outfitted diner in Old Montreal, has become a favored destination for its casse-croûte-inspired dishes. But in mid-February, the shoebox-sized restaurant welcomed LaSalle native Ryan Dixon, who had served as the executive chef and co-owner at Little Burgundy pizzeria Jane for the past two years.
Newly replanted and working alongside co-owner Travis Champion, Dixon is back to crafting his trademark Montreal old-school pies, and the restaurant is so much better for it. "At the beginning, Le Gros Jambon was really just going from day to day. They really needed someone to steer this monster that they had created," Dixon recently told me.
There's nothing quite like Dixon's awesomely rich pies, which, while a descendent of the doughy, over-the-top grease-fests from Lachine Canal pizzerias like Centrale and Dani's, also have an undercurrent of sophistication and finesse. Dixon's throwback pizzas fit snugly on the menu, which celebrates Quebec's culinary heritage with whimsical iterations of classics like the gravy-soaked poutine, mac 'n' cheese, glazed cake doughnuts, and griddled cheeseburgers.
Right now, the menu features only two pies, Dixon's signature smoked meat pizza ($15), and the "pizza bianca" ($13). "Eventually I'll expand the menu and make other kinds of pizza. But we're really limited with space, so we might have to rotate them. But it's like, when you rotate pies, people always come in wanting what we were making the day before," Dixon laughs.
The smoked meat pizza, one of Dixon's most popular creations at Jane, may seem unconventional, but I've become almost evangelical about this dish—it's tremendous and unexpected, truly one of the most thrilling pies I've had in Montreal. An oblong of chewy, slightly charred dough is topped with a smear of mustard sauce (a peppery combination of grainy mustard and homemade mayonnaise), thick, steaming hot shards of smoked meat from Schwartz's (you can read about their sandwiches here), perfectly melted golden cheddar cheese, and tissue-thin slices of pickle. The pie—with its transcendental chemistry of vinegary, salty, and fatty ingredients—is close to perfect. It's a loving homage to Montreal's most beloved sandwich.
Dixon's pizza bianca is nothing like the Roman version. It's an umami-rich blend of sauteed porcinis, bechamel, white cheddar, and thick squiggle of verdant basil-parsley oil and is just as terrific as the smoked meat. Dixon's pies arrive as slightly misshapen ovals, cut into small rectangles. Because his pizza is so unrelentingly rich, it's really better for sharing. Fortunately, it helps that the dough isn't at all dense. (And that they arrive on a porcine moulded platter is another excellent touch.)
For those who are wondering, Dixon's Le Gros Jambon pizza dough— soft, faintly sweet (it's enriched with a little honey), and tender—is slightly different than at Jane. "It's the only part of my recipe that's different, because we use a convection oven here instead of the traditional stone gas oven I had at Jane," Dixon says. "Here, the dough is a little more wet because the pies cook relatively quickly on the outside, but I want it to stay moist on the inside." Interestingly, the pizza bianca crust—which had an appealing, firm crackle and crunch—was much crisper than the doughy smoked meat pie. The undercrust was sturdier, too, unlike the other pie, which sagged under the heaps of smoked meat, and even got a little soggy.
Montreal loves its old-fashioned diners and delis (Wilensky's, Schwartz's, Kitchenette, and Dépanneur Le Pick Up are some of my favorites), but none of them make a great pizza. With its unpretentious, handcrafted vibe, Le Gros Jambon already has a strong presence in the Montreal restaurant community, but Dixon's decadent pies really make it something special.
"There's so much potential here for fun food—it's what I love doing. I do miss fine dining, but even then, my favorite part of being at those places was always cooking the staff meal, which I liked to make super white trash. Like, boundless white trash," Dixon laughs. "Here, I feel like I can do whatever I want."
About the Author: Natasha Pickowicz is a San Diego-born food writer and baker currently based in Montreal. She contributes to the Montreal Gazette, the Montreal Mirror, Kinfolk Magazine, and Acquired Taste Magazine. You can find her on Twitter at @natashapickowiz.